Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales Written Evidence

Submission from the Buddhist Society

  The Buddhist Society, a registered charity founded in 1924, is a layman's organisation under the patronage of HH the Dalai Lama with close links to all the major traditions and various schools of Buddhism. It is one of the oldest Buddhist organisations in the West, and is chartered to educate and make known the core principles of Buddhism without partiality. Its membership and classes, reflect this diversity, with all three major traditions, found across Asia, having schools within the society. There is complete tolerance in this diversity.

  The society does not normally get involved in political issues, as it follows the axiom that such secular matters are quite rightly outside the province of religious bodies. However the Buddhist perspective on these matters is to respond when asked to, particularly as the matter is presented as having a religious dimension, and it is happily contributed in the hope that its will be helpful in ultimately lessening the suffering amongst individuals in the world, a core part of Buddhist practise. There is no prescriptive or official Buddhist view and the writer of this has been invited to present a typical personal Buddhist response to this sort of issue, which is possibly likely to be shared by many long-term practitioners of the Buddhist path.

  The writer is not acquainted with the scope of all the issues involved and the general remit of the select committee, and the following is offered merely as a brief, initial response to proposed legislation, covering "religious" matters.

  The gentle psychology of the Buddhist viewpoint is presented, in the hope that areas of this approach may be useful in achieving a suitable cross section of viewpoint. Buddhism operates as an orthopraxis rather than as an orthodoxy in its dynamic, and therefore avoids dogmatic viewpoints.



  1.  There is a strong view amongst many around the world that a completely new paradigm is needed to reflect the religious nature of mankind, in a world where religion (or supposed "religious" activity) has often been the cause of suffering and not the solution. Recent International symposiums of world leaders, such as the successive Gorbachev State of the World Forums held in the 1990s in the US, have sought to try to visualise new paradigms and models for mankind for the global future. These included a strong religious component, attempting to think in fresh new ways about religious activity and its problems when collectivised and institutionalised.

  2.  Narrow and divisive definitions currently used as a yardstick, increasing divisiveness.

    2.1  At present all categorisation, relies on definitions of religion originating and formulated from the world-views of the orthodoxies of the three Semitic religions which have a common and shared perspective and ancestry in the Judaic tradition.

    2.2  This shared tradition and origin, in its predominant competitive orthodox practise, has each of the traditions (and sects and divisions within them) claiming a superior revelation, with some elements of the faithful tending to discount all other ways of religious practise or non-practise as scaled from simply wrong, to dangerous, to demonical. Words like heresy, blasphemy, conversion (to the elect), apostasy (with intendent shame and punishment), missionising (to groups of a different religious persuasion) and the withdrawal of rights to scared ritual (to those not rearing their children within the faith) perhaps indicate this cast of mind. Further problems exist in all religions in relation to Women's and minority rights, which are often local, archaic customs given the force of religious law, and which are now clearly very often a breach of human rights.

    2.3  It is however recognised that there are probably many practitioners of these religions, who have a gentler, less exclusive view, of their tradition and tolerantly see other religious traditions as equally valid and simply just other spiritual techniques of achieving exactly the same stereological goals.

  3.  Buddhist and non-Semitic perspective

    3.1  The perspective of Buddhism, and probably most non-Semitic religions, is that all sentient beings experience religious feeling whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics or theists. This is a unitary and unifying state of mind, a bringing of shared elements constantly into awareness, that is characterised by and reflects a sense that everything in the universe is interdependent, responsive and linked in relationship with every other part. Everyone experiences love, compassion, tolerance, peacefulness and selflessness in different degrees, and suffering is lessened by bringing into awareness these peak religious states, developing their depth of intensity and presence at all times by cultivation and practise. The instinctive love a mother has for a child demonstrates this innate altruism as an ever-present constant.

    3.2  Concomitant with this vision, there is also a strong sense that the universe is constantly and creatively unfolding in new ways and that this world of pain and suffering (samsara) is also a realm of great joy when experienced in a mindset and heart-set of compassion to all phenomena, good and bad alike.

    3.3  Buddhists have no interest in conversion (to what?) and those that are inclined to this tradition use the spiritual techniques as they choose to, in small or great measure. They equally have free choice to be participants in other traditions as well. Buddhists in Japan will often think of themselves simultaneously as Shintoists and Confucianists as well as Buddhists: similarly in China, Buddhist, Confucianist and Taoist; in Tibet, Buddhist and Bonpo; in India, Buddhist and Hindu. Primarily we see our function and duty is (to be available) to make people happy (and not "Buddhist")—happier Christians, Muslims, Frenchmen or Manchester United supporters, whatever group you need to belong to. Unassailable group boundaries, with such exclusions as the taboo, unclean, heathen or pagan (the "other"), is foreign to Buddhist thought.

    3.4  Possibly this dynamic could be a useful contribution to faltering ecumenism around the world, and the law could reflect this commonality in the thrust of its dynamic, as reflecting a modern way suited globally to most of us. Educated society globally now has a much broader and deeper understanding of (previously perceived) seemingly very contrary traditions. These can now be seen to really encompass exactly the same religious yearnings of the heart, and this paradigm could take the place of more archaic, separatist group formulations.

    3.5  Furthermore a central part of Buddhist practise is to avoid attachment in an impermanent world where all phenomena are transient. Attachment to that which is impermanent causes pain and suffering. The notion of belonging to a religion, a fixed belief system or collective body (even being a "Buddhist") can also be an attachment, arousing powerfully destructive energies and passions when the totem is threatened (this has nothing to do with deep, personal reverence for symbolic techniques and foci of religious cultivation, which is an important part of cultivation). However these metaphorical devices, rituals and icons are transient devices or skilful means in Buddhist terminology, and can only be a subject of injury and insult to those who are attached to them, and are technically dispensed with once they have fulfilled their function.

    3.6  In the converse, any one or body proclaiming superiority of belief, religious intolerance and hatred, or inspiring violence by whipping up religious partisan emotion on matters of separateness of identity, is not speaking from a true religious perspective, and should not be accorded the dignity of this being in any way a recognisable and acceptable religious perspective.

  4.  Dangers of "religious" energies

    4.1  All religious practise in all religious traditions work with and unleash powerful emotional energies, particularly in the collective, which need to be carefully channelled to good purposes by deeply responsible, gentle teachers or leaders.

    4.2  Much "religious behaviour" in the modern world is questionably religious at all, within this definition, and is certainly dysfunctional. (Most of the violent conflicts around the world have a "religious" basis).

    4.3  One wonders whether these identity groupings should be accorded any sort of legal protection, merely because they issue from within a "religious" collective, particularly as the position is often not democratic or relies on the self-interests of a community will.

    4.4  Here participation of the individual relies on the acquiescence of the individual view to a collective view, enshrined by dogma or community or ethnic tradition, in which non-compliance can lead to exclusion by the larger body. There seems to be a human rights issue in our modern sense, and the law does little to protect the right of dissenting individuals to remain within a religious community group without having views imposed on them. Should such a body be afforded protection from the secular community at large from reasonable criticism?

    4.5  Most so called religious issues, are really about community and ethnic conflict and should be recognised as such. Secular formulations on religious parameters urgently need to take this into consideration.

  5.  From a Buddhist perspective, religion is fundamentally an individual activity, a completely personal path that an individual follows, without prescription or penalty. The collective operates ideally only in the realm of compassion, to enshrine that freedom of quest, and provides support and means, teaching, habitation, rituals and techniques to allow this personal freedom to be exercised, explored and developed responsibly. There is an old Indian metaphoric axiom that enshrines personal religious choice, (and the complete equality and acceptability of all techniques and traditions or "religions", which exist to meet different peoples needs): "There are many paths leading to the same ancient city of the heart."


  Care should be taken on how, and even whether, a formal religious incitement law should be formulated, particularly if it reinforces separation and further entrenches the negative aspects of religious groupings and institutions, who should really be subject to the same critical criteria of performance of any powerful groupings in a humanistic democratic society. If laws are to be formulated in this difficult area, they should start off from the presumption that they are there to protect the individual and his freedom and dignity within society, and not afford additional protection to powerful religious groups (fronting community and ethnic self interests) from fair and reasonable criticism from within a modern democratic society and its prevailing mores and customs.

  Perhaps individual distress and community conflict caused by incitement of a "religious" nature can fall rather within extensions of existing laws, and should be viewed by the law as individual, ethnic or community issues, rather than religious issues.

  Blasphemy laws of course are redundant and outside the concerns of the state in this day and age, as seems the prevailing view in society at large.

7 August 2002

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